Why did the Soap & Detergent Association, a relatively small trade group, head an International Chamber of Commerce delegation to a recent meeting on SAICM, an emerging global chemical management program? After all, SAICM, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, is critical to numerous larger organizations as well.
According to Ernie Rosenberg, SDA's president and chief executive officer, the answer is that producers of soaps, detergents, and other cleaning products are in the business of making high-volume powders and liquids that have some toxicity and can be released to the environment. And these are precisely the kinds of products that are being targeted for regulation by SAICM and other government programs around the world.
SDA isn't against regulation. The problem, Rosenberg says, is that although his industry's products are made with hazardous chemicals, they themselves don't present much risk to consumers if used correctly. "We never advocate that risky chemicals shouldn't be regulated," he says. "We advocate that before you regulate, find out if there's a risk."
Like it or not, chemical regulation is growing worldwide. As in the case of SAICM, stricter regulation of chemical production and trade is behind REACH, Europe's program for the Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals, and it is also prescribed in changes to TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, recently proposed by U.S. legislators.
In Rosenberg's view, the cleaning products industry can't be complacent as these regulatory schemes advance and, he argues, converge. "If we have a risk-based system, we will do fine," he says. "But the rules that have come along are volume- and hazard-based." Although the ostensible targets of these rules may be high-volume chemicals, household cleaning products get caught in the same net. "The way they're designing the programs, we're collateral damage," Rosenberg says.
SDA is taking the same science-oriented approach to these newer global issues that it has long employed in perennial U.S. debates. In 2005, for example, the association successfully fended off several proposed regional bans of phosphates in automatic dishwashing detergents. Rosenberg says SDA convinced local officials that phosphate dish detergents have a minimal impact on environmental phosphate levels, whereas not using them leads to higher municipal water consumption.
According to Rosenberg, if there's an upside to the tightening regulatory climate, it's that SDA's value to its members clearly shines through. Indeed, despite a dicey economic climate, membership in SDA is growing. Downsizing chemical companies are increasingly relying on SDA for technical support, Rosenberg maintains, and certain firms that formerly saw SDA as mainly a business networking organization are now actually seeking seats on its board. "We are going to be essential," he says.